If the first phase of Manchester City's globally geared project really is approaching the end, this FA Cup final will surely end up going down as something of a Viking funeral. The Mancini years have been buoyant by most footballing measures, European ambitions aside. If they are coming to a close, this was a match that always looked like it might just nudge the needle either way on whether history will judge them a success or otherwise.
It was of course Wigan's day, and now Wigan's Cup year. Victory for Roberto Martínez's intermittently delightful, intermittently loopy, team will go down as one of the greatest and most appealing underdog achievements of recent steeply hierarchical years. But while much will be written about their success, it was also a hugely significant occasion for the losers.
With the match apparently heading for extra time there was even something oddly poignant about Pablo Zabaleta's fateful red card in the 84th minute. City's longest-serving starting outfield player was applauded warmly from the pitch by two sides of Wembley; six minutes later Wigan scored their winner, Ben Watson heading straight in from a corner and past Sergio Agüero on the post Zabaleta might have guarded. On the touchline Mancini was entirely still, the fall guy suddenly on what might otherwise have been a triumphant long-range goodbye.
After the match Mancini was cryptic in the face of the inevitable questions about his future, talking about building for next season and praising the "sensible people" in charge of the club. Should Mancini end up leaving City at the end of the season, it seems he will do so still robustly in credit with City's fans, who chanted his name from time to time, and in one pocket even instructed City's owners exactly where they could put their Manuel Pellegrini (not Manchester, where the sun does at least occasionally shine). Here Mancini was continually animated on the touchline in funereal black suit, directing his players insistently, and even at one point performing a furious double pirouette at a poor refereeing decision. Make no mistake: Mancini, with his slightly premature pre-match talk of three trophies in three years, was desperate to win this Cup final.
It is, at times, easy to feel a little sorry for City's players and manager, beset as they are by the requirement to continually justify their burnished status. Success is expected. Achievements are impatiently downgraded. A trophy a year is suddenly par for the course at a club that is still in the process of reimagining itself. Perhaps it is not surprising that this can be a strange City team, oddly restrained at times, at others dizzyingly fine. For all City's star wattage, and a middle period of Sky Blue pressure, Wigan were deserving victors at Wembley, a team of style and slender means who deserve to celebrate this victory wholeheartedly irrespective of their Premier League destiny.
City had started well, with Mancini's rotating forward quartet busily disorientating the Wigan defence. You feared a little for Wigan's team of spunky aspirants as Agüero at one point flicked the ball over Roger Espinoza's head and collected it, before nutmegging the Honduran as he ran back. And yet it was Wigan who wrested control of the opening 25 minutes, the apparently fearless Callum McManaman always a threat on the right. And for Wigan this was also an occasion to crown a mini-era, a first Cup final for a team who plays like lords whatever the score. Under Martínez Wigan always walk into the party like they're walking on to a yacht, even if this means occasionally tripping over a cleat.
And so it was, with Wigan purposeful and composed on the ball, City staged one of their brief retreats into listlessness. Yaya Touré was a strolling spectator in midfield, and there was a lack of zip in their passing near the goal. Good enough to coast, too talented individually not to expect to win this kind of match, City can – oddly for a team who have also shown wonderful collective spirit – still resemble a highly professional side of ringers. It is perhaps a tribute to Mancini that, in the Premier League at least, he so often draws a winning performance out of what is at this stage a transitional team at a transitional club, with at least seven players in its ranks who could be set to move on.
Here Carlos Tevez was City's most visible presence in attack, retaining his high work rate until his slightly surprising substation, while David Silva began to exert some scattered influence between the lines as Wigan faded a little around the hour mark. Mancini introduced James Milner, his midfield equivalent of a trusty pair of wellies, but despite switching furiously between 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 City still could not land a killer punch.
And so it was Wigan's day – a team who might have been designed simply to demonstrate the spendthrift grandeur of City's ambitions. This is a Cup-winning club that turned a profit this year, a club with a business plan and even a style of play that is geared towards selling its best players to bigger clubs, even if that style can, at times, involve floating like a butterfly and also defending like one. No matter: for Wigan this was a glorious Cup victory. And for the losers perhaps time – with Mancini in charge or not – to fire the cannon on the end of one era and the ramping up of another.